Shooting On Location: Keeping Mr. Murphy at Bay

Article ©2009 by Stuart Sweetow originally published in EventDV Magazine.

Mean Mr. Murphy lurks in the dark and tries to take the spark out of your production. He puts the spark at the electrical plug next to the oily rags, causing your set to dramatically ignite in a spectacular conflagration.
Nowhere is Murphy’s Law more applicable than shooting on location. Mr. Murphy’s goal is to keep your video from ever seeing the light of day. You will find him in a Catholic church, a corporate conference room, or a corner coffee shop. The convergence of uncontrollable elements begs Mr. Murphy’s appearance.

When you are lighting your set, Mr. Murphy lurks in the shadows, his hand eager to insert a plug and trip a circuit breaker or to yank a cord and trip your client. He instructs the control tower to change the flight path of the noisiest jets so that they roar right over your microphones.

He tells passers-by to walk behind your talent just as you are getting your best take. He taps your actor’s elbow as he is shaving, resulting in a scar that no makeup will cover. And he’s the one who grows a large pimple on the CEO’s cheek minutes before his on-camera appearance.

Mr. Murphy tells the janitor to start vacuuming just as you yell “action.” He schedules the garbage collectors to arrive in the midst of sensitive dialogue. As you are trying to catch a flight, he appears in the persona of the TSA officer who withdraws you from the line to slowly search you and your carry-on bags as your plane departs.

He discourages you from putting a sandbag on the legs of the light stand so it falls over, just missing the client’s head—but the loud noise sends panicked office workers streaming onto your set. Mr. Murphy causes the slight warping of the latch on the back door of your production van, letting cases of equipment fly out onto the freeway and bounce into the car behind you.

You’ll never eliminate Mr. Murphy, but anticipating some of his sinister moves can minimize his impact.

How Mr. Murphy Stole From My Big-Budget Video Production
I arrived at the loading dock at 7 a.m. to meet our grip truck; that was the earliest they would let us in. We were shooting a patient education video for the health giant Kaiser Permanente, and during the site survey weeks before we arranged permission to park the truck in the dock during our shoot inside the building. However, this morning the truck was not in the loading dock but on the street. The driver was walking toward me with a look on his face that said, “You’re not going to like this.”

The truck was a few inches taller than the entrance to the loading zone. I had assumed that if other trucks pull into the loading zone every day, our truck would not have a problem. So, we unloaded the truck on the street and wheeled all the gear—a lot of it—in through the loading dock. Our grip, who was also the truck driver, drove off to find a place to park that too-large truck, in downtown Oakland, Calif., on a weekday. That slowed us from the start, and I knew I would have to pay some overtime because of it.

What I hadn’t considered is that when we were through with our shoot, which was at about 8 p.m., the loading dock was closed for the night; we had to move the equipment out through the front lobby. That appeared easy until the security supervisor told us the lobby had some fancy flooring, and we could not wheel our equipment over it. Fortunately, one of our crew members pulled out the two large foam core boards we had brought to use as reflectors, and we placed them on the floor under the wheels of the carts. We had only two pieces of board, and once we moved over one board, we had to bring it around to the front of the next cart. Crossing the 30′ path to the front door with all our carts took close to an hour. All the time Mr. Murphy was emptying my wallet to cover the overtime for the truck and the entire crew.

Mr. Murphy Strikes even the Most Organized Production Managers
We spoke with Debbie Brubaker, a San Francisco producer and production manager who coordinates location shoots that range from feature films to high-budget corporate videos. She is a super-organized pro with plenty of tricks up her sleeve. This is what she told us:

I had made arrangements to videotape at a major university, and the professor of that particular lab was gone. I went there four times in person, I had emailed, called, and left messages. I even made an appointment with him through his secretary, and he never kept it. The head of the department said it would be okay; even his secretary said so.

So the day comes, and we show up with all the gear—camera lights and sound—and the guy blows a gasket. He says he knew nothing about any of it and that we couldn’t be there. So what do I do? I kindly ask one of his colleagues, with a lab close to his but not nearly as ideal, if I can shoot there. No problem, because it was already arranged as a backup anyway. When the first guy saw that the other professor was going to be in the video and was getting the attention, he all of a sudden became all smiles and friendliness. We changed course quickly and moved to where we needed to be. The second guy was in no way put off or felt abandoned, he predicted it would happen the way it did. The moral to this story is that people are strange and unpredictable. Never forget that.

I asked Brubaker what she does to plan shoots at clients’ locations such as at corporate headquarters and seminar centers.

I am usually most concerned with having a location that will be uninterrupted by outside forces. I have had incidents where they get real fussy if you need a room for the whole day. It is important to let them know that if we say we need it all day, we really do. And if you think the room has been kept for you and not scheduled by someone else, triple check.

You might look like an obsessive-compulsive idiot, but if you ask in a kind and professional manner it will save you every time. I cannot say how many times I have gotten bumped from conference rooms after booking them in advance. When I tell the client that we must have that particular space, often there is a reason. For example, the other room we want is next to the copy room and is noisy, or too close to the street, or whatever. So in addition to making sure the shooting space is going to work for you, you have to be very firm about needing that particular spot, lest you get bumped.

If the client and their staff are not used to having a production crew, albeit a small one of three to four folks, they also are not used to having the gear that goes with it. While it by no means comes anywhere near to the amount of stuff used for a feature, you need to explain to the client that it will look like the aliens have landed, and they are you.

Also, make sure you will have all the power you need, and make sure that someone who knows about that power will be on site the day you are working. Looks can be deceiving, and corporate buildings are not always all powerful and wise.

Site Survey Checklist

Who is the Director Here—Mr. Murphy or You?

So now that you are on the lookout for mean Mr. Murphy, here are some tips for keeping him off your shooting set:

• The weather is one thing that Mr. Murphy has on his side. Even if your shooting schedule calls for interiors on a particularly clear day, change the schedule to take advantage of the weather and shoot your exteriors that day. Then, if it rains, you have a perfect day to shoot your interiors.
• The electrical power on location, especially in a private home, may not be adequate if you plan to use several lights. One way to play it safe is to rent a generator together with long cables. Modern generators run very quietly, but make sure you learn in advance how to use them, and keep them outside.
• Protect floors from your rolling carts by bringing along plastic mats. Never drag anything over a floor, even a chair or a box. Some facilities have expensive flooring, and their managers prohibit any kind of adhesive tape. They don’t care how much money you spent on that gaffer’s tape; they have no reason to trust that it will not damage the floor.
• If you plan to move existing furniture in a room for a shoot, take a photo or a video shot of the room before you move things so you will know how to return it to the way you found it.
• If you plan to film on location, get a written permit. Why get a written permit? If someone calls the cops, you can’t be shut down, at least not right away.
• Want to use a particular location? Engage the owner in a discussion, and tell him how much you love his place. Show enthusiasm and ask about its history, but don’t let on that you want to use it for your film. When he asks you what you do for a living, say “filmmaker.” He may suggest that you make a documentary for PBS about his place. Play hard-to-get by saying you will consider it for a future project. Then call the owner in the near future.
• Insurance—both liability against lawsuits, and property—is not only required by many location owners, it’s also good business sense. In case you drop or lose a camera, it’s better to pay a $500 deductible than to have to shell out $10,000 for a new camera.
• Run the camera for a couple of seconds after you “cut” the scene. It gives you a little room for editing, and you might get a reaction shot you can use later. Can’t think of what to do next? Take any shot or angle, just to shoot something. Some call that extra shot the “placebo shot.”
• A “bad” shot may not be all bad, so look for parts that might be used for a cutaway shot. To prevent a continuity problem, take another shot of the action, this time from a different angle—at least 30 degrees (side or vertically). Then you have something to cut away to. A third shot increases the prospects exponentially.
• When you are budgeting the time to shoot and edit a production, simply double it. That will probably get you closer to the actual time needed.

Keep Mean Mr. Murphy Away From Your Batteries, Tapes, and Lenses
“Lenses are attracted back to their source—hard rocks.” [I found that quote on a website,]

When on location, plug your charger into an outlet that you can readily see, and start charging spare batteries right away. At a wedding reception, I found that one of the band members had unplugged my charger to plug in his amp. Now I avoid using outlets near the stage area.

If you work in cold climes, try to keep batteries warm by putting them in your pockets or under your arm. When you come out from the cold, condensation could form on the lens. So relax with a cup of cocoa, and give the lens a chance to warm up. Want to see something completely different? Rent Russian Ark and turn on the director’s comments. The movie is a filmed tour of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, done in a single 90-minute shot. The crew had to walk outside between buildings, and the lens fogged. They used a little heater on the lens to clear the condensation.

Speaking of lenses, invest in a French flag for your camera. It’s like a barn door atop your lens. It will prevent backlights or the sun from causing flares. Sunsets or sunrises are the “golden hour” in filmmaking. But “hour” is probably stretching things—that ideal “hour” is really only about 30 minutes long. So make sure you have cast and crew in place, and be careful to avoid people walking in the background of your shot.

When traveling to a shooting location, carry MiniDV tapes in your pockets when walking through security, or put them in clear plastic bags. While many videographers use small camcorders when shooting abroad, make sure you bring receipts if you travel with more than two cams. Customs guards may think you want to sell cameras there, and coming back they may want to charge you a fee if they think you bought the cameras there. Also, check regulations regarding travelling with lithium batteries because of the potential fire hazard. You will probably need to carry them on, rather than check them with luggage. Click here to read the latest from the TSA about air travel with batteries.

And Don’t Let Him Mess with Your Sound or Lighting

Could it be that Mr. Murphy works for the government? Check the frequencies of your wireless mics. Devices transmitting between 698MHz and 806MHz must cease operation as part of the DTV transition in February 2009. That band will be auctioned off for use with cell phones and emergency communications. When possible, test all your wireless mics at the planned shooting location, or at least use mics that have adjustable frequencies.

During your site survey, listen carefully for any sounds that could interfere with your shoot. A refrigerator that turns on and off, bathroom toilets or fans, and ventilation systems are firmly in Mr. Murphy’s control. They will probably be quiet when you perform your site survey, but a second before your best take is complete, he’ll turn on one of those noisemakers.

Several years ago, while shooting an educational film at a school, I heard a strange noise through the headphones. We shot at night, when the staff and students were long gone. The noise required that we stop filming. I told the cast and crew to take a 5-minute break, and I roamed the building until I found the culprit. Mr. Murphy was dressed in drag as a cleaning lady with a vacuum cleaner. I explained that we were filming a video, and I asked if she would be quiet for a few minutes. She smiled and nodded yes. As soon as we started recording again, on came the vacuum cleaner. So I returned to ask again. Then I learned that she did not speak English—only Polish. Either she grew tired of my charade or she eventually caught on when I asked her to take a break and join us on the set.

Another problem when recording audio on location is when Mr. Murphy hums a 60Hz tone onto your soundtrack. Electricity in the U.S. operates at 60Hz, and when mic cables lay adjacent to electrical extension cords, Mr. Murphy sings that tone with delight.

Professional sound people record a few seconds of room tone whenever they change locations. This is the sound of the room with no one speaking, and editors sometimes mix this in over the soundtrack at cut points if one shot has a little more background noise than the other. When filming outside it is called ambient sound.

If you need to shoot a scene with windows in the background of the shot, there are two approaches. The first is to use HMI lights. They are daylight color and very bright. They are also very expensive. The other is
to put gels on the windows, preferably on the outsides. CTO (color temperature orange) gels are designed to color correct the outdoor light to match it to indoor quartz lamps. For a sunny day, you may need to add a neutral density (ND) gel.

What if your script calls for a black background, and your light-skinned subject shows up wearing a black jacket and black shirt? You risk winding up with a shot that could look like a white face floating in a sea of black, especially if it will be viewed online. One trick is to use barn doors on a light or to set up a flag to shade the light away from her face, so more of it illuminates her clothing. Similarly, if your dark-skinned subject shows up wearing white and you need to film him against a white wall, you may need to direct the light away from his clothing and onto his face.

All these tips will just keep Mr. Murphy away until his next opportunity arises. He’ll sneak onto your shooting set when you least expect him. So, make sure you have a well-thought-out Plan B ready to implement just in case. On second thought, devise a Plan C too.

Murphy bag

Stuart Sweetow (sweetow at runs Oakland, Calif.-based video production company Audio Visual Consultants. He taught video production at UC Berkeley Extension, was associate editor of Wedding and Event Videography, and was a contributing editor to Camcorder & Computer Video magazine.

1 thought on “Shooting On Location: Keeping Mr. Murphy at Bay

  1. Mr. Sweetow,

    This was a great read, thank you.

    I’m a student (returning student would be more accurate as I’m in career change mode) at Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, CA studying photography.

    I’m working on an assignment that requires fifty images that are all part of the same theme. My theme is Constraints…but in an abstract type way. I’ve chosen to attempt to shoot thirty-fifty shots of things that can go wrong in a given day (1-20 or so shots will be attempts to portray how to prevent some of the issues).

    In doing a bit of research on ‘Mr. Murphy’ I can across your article and thought it is great. I’m still developing my ideas, but have the basics written down for the shot list. I was wondering if I may have your permission to either quote some of your article or use it for some ideas it may give me? I wold certainly give credit to you in the acknowledgements section of my book. This is a school project so I suspect it will have a slim chance, if any of production. If it does, I’ll contact you should you have concerns about that.

    Thank you for your consideration,


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